White House, Hill staff seeking compromise on postal bill

The White House might compromise on postal overhaul legislation in time to avoid a looming double-digit rate increase, sources say.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., the chief proponents of last year's bill, are leaning toward backing administration requests intended to provide financial transparency, according to Senate aides.

In exchange, they said, the White House might allow more flexibility in allowing the Postal Service to tap a retirement escrow account that the Postal Service contends is overfunded. The White House has opposed that approach, as well as the way the bill shifts the cost of military pensions to the Treasury Department.

The negotiations over the legislation come as the board of the Postal Service took the first step Thursday toward seeking a rate increase -- a process that can take close to a year.

Administration opposition kept postal overhaul bills from reaching the floor of either chamber last year despite both committees approving them unanimously. The White House has been meeting regularly with majority and minority staff of the House Government Reform Committee, aides said. Although most participants expect the Senate bill to be closer to the final version, the House likely will need to adopt some administration proposals to win the support of the chamber's leaders, a lobbyist for the mailing industry said.

"Asking members of the House to vote for a bill that the White House doesn't like, the leadership doesn't like, the mailing industry doesn't like, in the hopes that it can be worked out in conference, that's a roll of the dice," said Ben Cooper, who tracks legislation for the Printing Industries of America.

At the White House's behest, the Senate measure -- expected to be introduced next month -- likely will limit or strike provisions giving the Postal Service leeway for banking and investment practices, Senate aides said.

It also might include language requiring the agency to file SEC-like reports to a regulatory board. In addition to the escrow negotiations, the Senate measure might give the Postal Service greater flexibility in negotiating work-sharing agreements, which allow the agency to offer discounts to large mailers for presorting mail and other tasks normally done by postal workers.

Collins championed a broader work-sharing provision last year. But committee Democrats, joined by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. opposed it. Specter is no longer on the Governmental Affairs panel; proponents say the new work-sharing language probably will be a compromise between Carper and Collins.

It is not clear whether the White House will be willing to make similar concessions on military pensions. The White House would like the agency to assume responsibility for the benefits of its military retirees. Although nearly all stakeholders -- including the Postal Service, unions and the mailing industry -- oppose the idea, the White House has stood firm, lobbyists say.

"I don't know of anyone that likes it, other than the people in the administration," Cooper said. "That doesn't mean that some people aren't ready to throw up their hands."

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